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Sol Salbe's Middle East Round-Up - 5 Sept 2006

Sol Salbe's Middle East Round-Up

The Daily Briefing - 5 September 2006

INTRODUCTION: After some disruption in recent weeks, it seems we may have settled on a new day on which to run Sol Salbe's weekly Middle East round-up - look for it each Tuesday. This week Sol ranges from the great "was the Red Cross ambulance bombed debate" which has been rolling around the blogosphere, to the ongoing, underlying question of the occupied territories. (For more on that ambulance story - while TDB does not in anyway endorse the site, nor the view it pushes on this story - for links to get you started, this is a reasonable place to start.)

Middle East Round-Up

Sometimes it is easier to write on what the Israeli media is not covering rather than on it does. Foreign Minister Downer’s spat with the Australian media is a no-show. Downer has slammed our media for telling fibs about Israel. His most serious contention is that a story about a Red Cross ambulance being hit by an Israeli missile was a hoax. He even managed to find a blogger who has documented the evidence. In turn this has resulted in a serious confrontation with country’s most pro-Israeli newspaper, the Australian. Its Middle East reporter, Martin Chulov, has re-visited the scene and is adamant that his earlier story was correct. The paper’s editor chose to trust its own reporter.

So while the Herald-Sun’s Andrew Bolt and Downer’s media adviser Tony Parkinson are sticking to their guns even the State Zionist Council of Victoria has decided that issue is not cut and dry. The Israeli media, which one would expect to take some interest in the matter, has remained mum. It is possible that a Hebrew item may have slipped pass me but I haven’t seen any references to it. In English you can find two references, one from Ynetnews dated 8 August which reported that bloggers are challenging the story and another from the partisan Middle East on Target reprinting… Andrew Bolt.

Another issue that hasn’t made to the Israeli media but is highly relevant here is the debate during the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Antony Loewenstein’s My Israel Question. Peter Kohn’s account is in the Australian Jewish News. Better still read at least some of the speakers’ notes yourself at the Melbourne University Press website. Unfortunately two of the most impressive contributions, those of Julian Burnside QC and Robert Richter QC, are not there as yet.

There is as yet another non-Israeli source to recommend on the conflict. A very interesting perspective “Opting for military solution in Palestine could plant time bombs” from Melbourne-based Indonesian writer Dewi Anggraeni. It is particularly relevant as during the week Israel had dropped its objection to Indonesian troops serving with UN forces in Lebanon.

Real issues

As expected some issues are getting traction in the Israeli media. While the post-war demonstrations appear to have fizzled out the government is still very much in trouble. No one is exactly taking bets on it serving a full-term. Veteran Haaretz reporter Uzi Benziman ridiculed the Israeli PM’s claims on this very score:

“Prime Minister Ehud Olmert boasted. last week that while he was touring the northern communities with his head held high, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was holed up in a bunker. The prime minister did not realize that hiding in a bunker is not only a physical state but also a psychological state - and certainly a political one.

“The answer to the question of who is under siege two weeks after the war, Olmert or Nasrallah, is not an obvious one. Nasrallah has gone underground, but his leadership within his organization remains firm and his position in the Arab world has become stronger. Olmert's chair on the other hand, is shaky. To tell by his mood, the prime minister's advantage is hardly unequivocal.”

Another issue that concerns the Israeli media is corruption. It may not be uppermost in the mind of ordinary Israelis. But when the legal system is processing serious allegation against President Katsav, Prime Minister Olmert, Vice Prime Minister Peres, suspended Justice Minster Ramon, suspended Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee chair Hanegbi as well the Treasurer, minister of Agriculture and coalition chairperson, there develops a pattern.

But trust in terms of the war concerns them much more. Ynetnews reports that trust in their own spokespeople during the war or so low that the majority of Israelis actually preferred to believe the other side. It is worth looking at Dr Uri Lebel of Ben Gurion University’s study on this subject:

“‘We reached a really crazy situation,’ says Lebel. ‘A psychological situation which seems inconceivable: Instead of the Israeli public watching our national spokesman who tells it what is happening every day, who will minimize the chaos and who will be seen as believable, something unprecedented happened: The public perceived the enemy leader against whom we fought as having those characteristics, and waited impatiently for his speeches. Nasrallah contradicted the Israeli spokespeople more than once, many times contradicting the minister of defense – he was the first to announce the deaths of Israeli soldiers and the sad circumstances which led to them.’“

Lebel was right. Israelis have good reasons to believe Nasrallah. Back on 16 October 2001, Nasrallah announced that Hezbollah had captured a senior Israeli and was holding him as hostage to trade in for Lebanese being held by Israel. The response of the then Defence Minster and Deputy Prime Minister, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was telling. He told the media what can be translated roughly from the Hebrew as “Nasrallah may be a lot of things but he is not a liar.”

But of course bread and butter issues take precedence: rebuilding and reconstruction following the war. The country’s most senior defence analyst, Haaretz’s Zeev Schiff, mentioned in passing that the IDF estimated that between 15,000 and 17,000 homes were destroyed in south Lebanon in villages that supported Hezbollah. He did not give an estimate to the damage in south Beirut.

There was a lot more information about damage in Israel. Ynetnews reported: “Some 12,000 buildings, including 4,000 public structures, were damaged by rocket attacks waged by Hizbullah from Lebanon…. The Ministry for the Environment is drafting plans to get rid of tons of rubble from destroyed buildings, as the Prime Minister's Office estimates that 2,000 buildings and apartments were destroyed during the war.

These figures, however, are based on claims to compensation. The government may or may not accept them individually but is reaping the political benefit in presenting the picture of the huge damage to the world. Einyan Merkazi was sceptical about their validity: “How can it be that a total of 3950 missiles and Katyushas, three quarters of which landed in vacant spaces, ‘succeeded’ in damaging no less than 12,000 building in the north of the country? More than that: how come less than a thousand missiles managed completely destroy 2000 buildings or flats included in this frightening total?”

But the best news of the past week has been the increasing voice of those who are realising that the problem remains the Occupation and that that no aspect whether in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon can be solved without dealing with it. One example was the Haaretz editorial:

“The occupation is still occupation

“The Lebanon war has not proved the unilateral withdrawal was a failure. Neither has it made occupation any more reasonable or moral.

“The Qassam rocket fire from Gaza may have strengthened the position of those who demanded a withdrawal by agreement, but did not evoke a yearning to resettle there. The settlements in Gaza did not protect Israel from rocket fire or suicide attacks; they confined the IDF to missions that exhausted it and undermined the justness of its struggle.

“The hasty withdrawal of reserve forces from Lebanon now proves there is no regret for the pullout six years ago from this region either. Perhaps the pullout wasn't carried out wisely, perhaps Israel missed a chance for peace with Syria, perhaps it failed to foresee Hezbollah's gaining strength, but nobody believes Israel should have stayed in Lebanon permanently.

“The occupation of the territories is still a millstone on Israel's neck, paralyzing any attempt at normalization with the Arab states, even those who share interests with Israel against radical Islam. One cannot demand of the citizens of Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt to identify with Israel as long as it refuses to release its stranglehold on millions of Palestinians under its rule.

“Conducting negotiations with the Palestinians' representatives is still an utmost Israeli interest. Palestinian politics are changing daily, but Israel is blind to this process. Only yesterday Israel captured and imprisoned the deputy Palestinian prime minister, and other cabinet and parliament members are still in Israeli prison. It is doubtful whether this behavior advances Israel's interests, or even the release of Gilad Shalit.

“Israel should have encouraged the talks for setting up a national unity government between Fatah and Hamas, the prisoners' document, the Egyptian initiative to free women and veteran prisoners - to try to jump start some process, for fear that a political vacuum would turn Gaza into South Lebanon. The rocket fire should also be stopped by agreement. Military operations, grand and sophisticated as they may be, do not achieve the results that an agreement accepted by both sides can achieve.

“The settlers of Eli, three of whose residents were killed in Lebanon, say the war proved the settlers right. This is a blatant lie, based on preaching to messianic militarism, worshiping eternal war against the Arabs with no willingness for concessions or dialogue. The settlements and the occupation are disastrous to Israel even if the settlers volunteer to the army and are killed, like soldiers from the rest of the population. The death of soldiers from Eli does nothing to justify their settlement there.

“The funds that were invested in the settlements could have been used to prevent the home front towns in the Galilee from becoming poor, rundown neglected communities. The erosion of the army, due to fighting against Palestinian civilians for years, explains at least in part the IDF's weakness in the face of Hezbollah.

“The settlers must not be allowed to use the war in Lebanon to ‘launder’ the settlement project, even if Olmert's government does not intend to carry out the realignment plan. Governments come and go, but the need to end the occupation remains.”

- Sol Salbe/The Daily Briefing

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